To Kill a Mockingbird Historical and Social Context
by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American literary classic. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962, with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch. The novel also won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1961 and was Best Sellers magazine “Paperback of the Year” in 1961.

Although Harper Lee has not published a major work since To Kill a Mockingbird, the book retains its place in American literature for its telling of a regional story with a universal message. Also, although it is not a main issue, the novel features a feminist struggle. Even though the main focus of the novel remains Scout’s growing recognition of the prejudices of her surroundings, Scout struggles for an understanding of womanhood. Through the strong, lyrical voice of this independent tomboy, the reader sees a young girl unsure of her place in Southern femininity. Scout struggles with how to fit into the world of “ladies,” as exemplified by her Aunt Alexandria, and how to retain the independence that she has had as a child. Men still hold the main arena, and their world seems much more interesting to Scout than the world of caretaking that her aunt enjoys. Only Miss Maudie, Scout’s outspoken neighbor, offers a good model for Scout. Maudis is independent and speaks her mind, yet she enjoys her baking and tending her garden.

Lee has been linked to other Southern writers who emerged in American literature after World War II, such as Truman Capote (who was the model for Dill in the novel), Carson McCullers, William Styron, and Eudora Welty. Along with these writers, Lee celebrates the Southern tradition of looking back on the past as did her predecessor William Faulkner. The new Southern writers, however, wrote about a “new South,” a region that looked not only to its past but also to its future. Critics praised Lee for her portrayal of the new Southern liberal in the character of Atticus Finch. They also praise her technical use of point of view and her strong evocation of place as the strengths of To Kill a Mockingbird.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Although frequently referred to as a regional novel, To Kill a Mockingbird quickly proved to have universal appeal. A best-seller, it received mixed critical reviews but was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and soon became one of the most widely read contemporary novels in U.S. high schools. Objections to its mild profanity, inclusion of racial epithets, depiction of hypocrisy in religion, and reference to rape led to occasional short-term censorship in public schools and libraries but ultimately only increased the popularity of the novel. Written during one of the most turbulent periods of race relations in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird effectively reflects and indicts the social code of the South, which conflicted with established law in failing to provide justice for all, regardless of race. As race relations were being tested in both the courts and the streets, readers responded emotionally and intellectually to a literary work that advocated equal justice for all humanity.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Sharecropper's house Published by Gale Cengage

Civil Rights in the 1950s

Despite the end of slavery almost a century before To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 (President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863), African Americans were still denied many of their basic rights. Although Lee sets her novel in the South of the 1930s, conditions were little improved by the early 1960s in America. The Civil Rights movement was just taking shape in the 1950s, and its principles were beginning to find a voice in American courtrooms and the law. The famous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court trial of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared the long-held practice of segregation in public schools unconstitutional and quickly led to desegregation of other public...

(The entire section is 2,094 words.)